Can't stand the heat: Kitchen workers suffer when temperatures soar

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      By Felicia Chiappetta and Madeline Dunnett

      On a hot Saturday in July 2021, Damon was working in front of three deep fryers, one grill, two flat tops, and 10 burners in the kitchen of a busy restaurant in Langley. Outside, a heat dome stretched across the Lower Mainland, but Damon still had to go to work.

      Customers had few options of places to go since many restaurants closed that day, so they flocked to the ones that were still open.

      “The rush started at 11 in the morning, and it ended at close,” Damon, who asked us not to include his last name, told the Straight in an interview.

      The kitchen had no air conditioning—a common situation for most commercial kitchens due to safety concerns around food particles being sucked into the machines, even though commercial kitchens can get up to 45 C or higher. At 47 C, the human body’s cells can begin to die. In the most extreme cases, organ failure can occur, which could ultimately lead to death.

      According to a 2021 StatCan report, only 36 per cent of households in this province had any type of AC, even though that summer the BC Coroners Service reported over 600 deaths due to extreme heat. That kind of weather is only getting more common: BC warmed by 1.4 C between 1900 and 2013, more than the global average of 0.85 C.

      After a record-breaking May heatwave, long-term forecasts and rapidly warming ocean temperatures suggest this summer is set to be similarly hot, dry, and dangerous. Despite its precarious and unregulated nature, indoor food service is rarely considered when discussing the human cost of extreme heat.

      The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety does not currently state a maximum temperature in which workers can refuse work—it is mainly left to the employer’s discretion.

      “I didn’t feel supported by my employer at all,” Damon said.

      According to Jen Kostuchuk, the climate-labour project coordinator with the non-profit Worker Solidarity Network, 88 per cent of workers reported they do not feel comfortable refusing unsafe work.

      This finding comes from her year-long study, released this spring, in which she interviewed dozens of food service workers in BC—baristas, cooks, servers, dishwashers, drive-thru workers, and cashiers.

      One food service worker told Kostuchuk, “[Employers] expect you to work harder and faster in the heat because it still needs to get done.”

      Kostuchuk believes that although policies to protect workers during extreme heat should occur at the governmental level, it is ultimately up to the employer to implement them. One of those policies is more paid sick days.

      “We’ve had workers who have said that they don’t take advantage of the five paid sick days because they’re fearful that their employer will get angry with them,” Kostuchuk said. “On the flip side, we’ve heard from others who have said they’ve never taken advantage of the five paid sick days, because it’s five out of 365. How do they know which five will be most important?”

      When Damon worked in landscaping and the outside temperature would reach 34 degrees, his employer’s policy dictated that the crews had to stop working for safety reasons. But commercial kitchens generally have nowhere near the same kind of heat protections.

      During that hot Saturday in 2021, Damon’s manager had a heat stroke and nearly fainted. He took himself to the walk-in freezer and had to cool himself down for 45 minutes—an experience shared by many of the workers who spoke to Kostuchuk, who said they have had to find inventive ways to keep cool in sweltering work conditions.

      “The night went on as usual, but just down a manager,” Damon said.

      Dr. David McVea, a public health physician at the BC Centre for Disease Control in environmental health services, said that when the body radiates heat, the blood vessels expand like a balloon, allowing for the blood to reach the skin and release heat through the pores.

      When you’re dehydrated, your heart works overtime trying to pump blood to your extremities. This doesn’t leave enough blood to travel to your brain. When key chemicals aren’t able to reach the brain, for example from excessive sweating, a person can feel light-headed or faint.

      “Your brain is being changed by the heat,” McVea explained.

      Based on Kostuchuk’s research, 77 per cent of workers report that their workplace does not have adequate protective measures when it comes to environmental disasters.

      The part-time nature of the food service industry means that workers like Damon have to cover costs of health care on their own, with the majority of their earnings going to transportation and rent.

      “The cost of living is so high that you don’t want to say no [to a shift] in case you lose your job,” one of Kostuchuk’s interviewees shared.

      Another asked “Why would we justify taking a day off when it means we don’t have as much money to survive?”

      Damon stayed at that restaurant for nine months after his manager overheated, and currently works at another restaurant in Vancouver. He’s worked at other food establishments before, but ultimately left those due to employee safety concerns.

      As the climate continues to warm, Kostuchuk hopes people will be mindful of their consumer habits when ordering food during extreme heat.

      For food service workers who can’t stand the heat, the answer isn’t always getting out of the kitchen; it’s keeping the kitchen cool enough to remain open safely.